As I reflect back on my 8 years of service in the Maine legislature, I think about the legacy I leave behind not just for the communities I serve, but for the next group of leaders that come after me.
The core of my service centered around the concept of having a government not beholden to special interests, corporations, or lobbyists. And probably most important of all, their money. I was able to pass into law a ban on lobbyist contributions, an end to profiting off political contributions through the use PACs as personal slush funds, a true 1 year ban on former lawmakers becoming lobbyists, clear definitions around caucus PACs to ensure the Ethics Commission can enforce the rules, and a ban on Clean Election candidates running PACs. At least half of those initiatives received bipartisan support, even unanimous support. Something that increasingly is becoming harder to accomplish given how polarizing our politics have become. These wins represent significant campaign finance reform that would have never happened if I wasn’t in Augusta fighting the good fight.
As co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, I co-sponsored legislation with Senate President Troy Jackson to make Maine the first state in the country to use Ranked Choice Voting in the presidential election. I also co-sponsored a bill with Speaker of the House Sara Gideon to create an automatic voter registration system in Maine. These two new laws move us closer to reducing barriers to the ballot box, improving our politics, and increasing civic participation.
During my time in the House and Senate, I brought young Democratic and Republican lawmakers together in the formation of a Youth Caucus. By working together, we advocated for sensible policies around reducing student loan debt, adding financial literacy into the curriculum, and my successful bill to make community service a high school graduation standard. I also co-sponsored successful legislation to make it easier for children of Veterans to obtain tuition waivers to go to college.
As chairman of the only bipartisan committee in the legislature, the Government Oversight Committee, I took a leadership role holding agencies and department heads accountable to ensure effectiveness of programs and that taxpayer dollars were spent appropriately. We directed Maine’s watchdog agency, OPEGA, to review tax breaks, collect information on programs, and investigate governmental issues. I’m proud to say every single vote on my committee was not only bipartisan, but unanimous during my time as its chairman.
As a member of the Environment & Natural Resources Committee, I fought to protect the water quality of our rivers and the Gulf of Maine and helped lead the charge to ban offshore oil drilling. To reduce pollution, I cosponsored a law to ban single-use Styrofoam containers, making Maine the first state in the country to do so. I served on the Governor’s Climate Council, which is leading efforts to reduce carbon emissions, achieve 100% renewable energy, and create good-paying green energy jobs in Maine. My role on the Coastal & Marine Working Group has meant a front row seat to drafting long term solutions to protect our coastline from the impacts of climate change. I also co-sponsored legislation that made it easier for the city of Saco to protect our coastline through the dune system.
As a member of the Criminal Justice & Public Safety Committee, I helped facilitate a compromise on jail funding, working with county Sheriffs and county commissioners all over Maine for responsible budgeting. On the Taxation Committee, I advocated and helped pass property tax relief in the form of expansions in both the Homestead Exemption and the Property Tax Fairness Credit.
My bill to establish greater consumer protections around robocalls became law. I worked alongside Attorney General Aaron Frey to ensure the state had the tools at its disposal to hear complaints from individuals, report bad actors, and work with other states and the Federal government to collaborate on enforcement. I took on health insurance companies to expand access to alternative and holistic forms of medicine and co-sponsored legislation ahead of the pandemic to expand telehealth capabilities statewide.
My bill to fund Saco traffic improvements to Route 112 and exit 36 may have not passed, but it put pressure on the Maine Turnpike Authority and DOT to move forward with long-term planning and funding of this critical infrastructure project.
On a personal note, I'm proud to have been a co-sponsor to a bill alongside Rep. Ryan Fecteau that banned conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ youth in the state of Maine.
Aside from committees and legislation, I also served as a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. In this role, I helped to study and advise the legal and economic impacts of trade agreements on existing laws, working conditions and businesses in Maine. With everything happening on the national level with trade, this became even more critical. I had an opportunity to work hand in hand with our congressional delegation as changes in trade policy were handed down and harshly impacting Maine.
It’s hard to summarize 8 years of leadership. With over 2,000 bills in a given session, I’m bound to have missed something including voting for responsible state budgets every two years. Overall though, I hope the legacy I leave behind is that of a strong worth ethic, commitment to service, high energy for involvement, a relentless advocacy for good governance, and someone who delivers real results for our state.
Justin Chenette is the outgoing State Senator for the Saco-OOB area, President of the Maine Democracy Project, Vice President of Saco Main Street, and author of ‘The Great Whoopie Pie Debate: A Kids’ Guide to the Maine Legislature’. Follow his future updates at www.JustinChenette.com and on social media.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco